Monday, February 18, 2008

Beef Buyers "Burp-ware"

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forced a recall by Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company, the largest beef recall in U.S. history totaling 143 million pounds. The beef produced goes back to February 2006, meaning most of the recalled meat has already been eaten. In that case buyer beware is now buyer burp-ware.

Responses from regulators and management are telling. Here's what the U.S.D.A. said about the largest beef recall in U.S. history:

"We do not know how much of this product is out there at this time. We do not feel this product presents a health risk of any significance," said Dick Raymond, the undersecretary of agriculture for food safety. "But the product was produced in noncompliance with our regulations, so therefore we do have to take this action."

For somebody in charge, Mr. Raymond doesn't know much. After reading his words, I could easily conclude noncompliance with U.S.D.A regulations is no big deal, especially given his implication of virtually no health risk from the firm's actions. What else did he say?

Federal regulations are aimed at preventing the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as mad cow disease, and other diseases. Raymond said the average age of the cattle involved is 5 to 7 years, meaning most of them were probably born long after a 1997 ban on a type of cattle feed suspected to cause the disease. He said the incidence of the disease in U.S. cattle is "extremely rare."

Average age is just that, some cows are younger and some are older than the 5 to 7 year range given by the bureaucrat. Most were born after the 1997 ban does not mean all. How many at risk cows were processed, Mr. Raymond? And have any violations of the 1997 ban occurred? Two U.S. cows were discovered to have BSE in 2003, one in Washington state and another in Texas. A third case was found in March of 2006.

Of course the incidence of BSE is extremely rare, but a few cases in Britain caused widespread cattle slaughter to eliminate the disease. Canada's efforts to keep BSE from spreading are even stronger than America's. The NYT piece added the following:

Agriculture officials said there was little health risk from the recalled meat because the animals had already passed pre-slaughter inspection and much of the meat had already been eaten. In addition, the officials noted that while mad cow disease was extremely rare, the brains and spinal cords from the animals — the area most likely to harbor the disease — would not have entered the human food chain.

Might this be a bit of a red herring? Who eats cattle spines or brains? But those dangerous parts still enter the nonhuman food chain in America.

In July 2007 Canada broadened its safeguards against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, by banning the use of cattle brains, spinal cords, and certain other body parts from all animal feeds, pet foods, and fertilizer.

Management from Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company weighed in as well:

In a statement issued February 3, Westland Meat President Steve Mendell said that the company was cooperating with the USDA and that the practices depicted in the Humane Society video are "a serious breach of our company's policies and training. We have taken swift action regarding the two employees identified on the video and have already implemented aggressive measures to ensure all employees follow our humane handling policies and procedures."

Let's see, this serious breach went on for two years under the noses of company management and the U.S.D.A.? That's considered swift action? Why did management not know? In an Abu Ghraib like move, the two former employees were charged with animal cruelty in California.

The news report didn't say anything about financial incentives the employees might have had to process downed cows. Were there quotas or bonuses associated with production volumes?

It's a sad day when to cost of poor quality hits so many people, 37 million pounds went into burgers, chili and tacos in school lunch programs. It's also sad when customers have to beware after consuming.